This post may contains affiliate links. All recommendations and opinions remain my own. For more information, check out my disclaimer.
If you are travelling to Japan for the first time, it may feel like a bit of a whirlwind; a country famed for technology and ancient temples. With this comes a culture change for many people and therefore you may be looking for some tips for your first time in Japan. Japan is a country built on respect, dignity and hard work. This means the guidelines on how to act differ from many countries around the world, especially countries in Europe.
Below is a list of my top tips for visiting Japan for the first time. These should help you avoid any awkward moments and help you during your time in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Top Tips For First Time In Japan
Withdraw Cash at 7-Eleven
Despite being tech mad, Japan is a cash-orientated country. Unless you fancy carrying around a large sum of cash, you will no doubt want to withdraw money a few times during your stay. To get the most out of this, you should withdraw cash from 7-Eleven convenience stores.
It may seem odd but not all ATMs in Japan are 24 hours. Some are closed/switched off overnight. 7-Eleven stores offer cash from the ATM 24 hours a day and accept international credit/debit cards. Most ATMs in Japan don’t actually accept international cards. The Post Office and 7-Eleven stores do. However, you usually get the best exchange rate at a 7-Eleven.
You should expect to get charged a small fee (around 100 yen) per transaction. This is regardless of what ATM you use.
Get an IC Card
Another way of spending money is actually with an IC card. IC cards are pre-loadable cards that can be used to pay for items such as public transport, vending machines items, shops and restaurants. These work as a contactless card which you just tap off the reader.
These are the easiest way to hop on and on Japan’s ridiculously efficient public transport. This saves any handling of cash for short subway trips.
Depending on where you purchase the card will depend on which IC card you will buy. Some of the top IC cards are:
- Suica (issued by JR East for the Tokyo metropolitan region)
- Pasmo (same as Suica but issued from non-JR Rail)
- Icoca (issued by JR West in the Osaka metropolitan region)
- Toica (issued by JR Central)
- Kitaca (issued by JR Hokkaido)
- Sugoca (issued by JR Kyushu)
- Nimoca (same as Sugoca but issued from non-JR Rail)
As of 2013, these are all compatible with each other so there are no region restrictions or anything like that to worry about.
As I arrived in Osaka, I purchased my Icoca card at the airport and kept it with me for use, even in Tokyo. You can add funds anywhere in Tokyo where Suica card is accepted too.
Eat Like a Local
This one is key. Forget about your eating habits back home. Forget about the phrase “I’m not eating that” and just order anything you find different. Japan is famous for its food so you are best to just dive in and make the most of it. From my experience, everything I ate in Japan I enjoyed… with the exception of chicken hearts. But, at least it makes a good story.
Japan is home to a number of great dishes. One of my favourite memories is sitting in a restaurant, on the tatami mats, eating a big pot of shabu shabu. Another is sitting in an izakaya ordering random meats, like beef tongue and beef heart, and cooking it ourselves on the coals on our table. Travelling is all about experience new things, and a culinary adventure of Japan is mouth-watering in itself.
The top foods you should be on the lookout for in Japan are:
- Gyudon: Rice dish with beef.
- Kare raisu: Simple curry sauce with meat and rice.
- Matcha: Finely ground green tea leaves. You can get this in anything from coffee to ice cream.
- Okonomiyaki: Savoury pancake/omelette.
- Ramen: What you will no doubt eat your entire trip. Noodles, broth, various toppings and a bowlful of umami!
- Shabu Shabu: Hot pot dish with vegetables, meat and broth.
- Sushi: Self-explanatory!
- Takoyaki: Battered dough ball filled with octopus.
- Tempura: Deep fried food. Usually fish or vegetables.
- Yakiniku: Not really a dish, but the method of cooking the food yourself in a restaurant/izakaya over a barbecue.
- Yakitori: Glazed chicken skewers. Try different parts of the chicken here!
For a more intimate dining experience, try Kaiseki dining. This is effectively a tasting menu type meal, which consists of small intricate dishes.
Consider a JR Pass
The JR Pass can sometimes be a cost-effective and convenient way of travelling throughout Japan by train. The JR Pass allows a traveller unlimited use of the JR trains around Japan for a specified number of weeks. This means that you could save a bit of money if you are travelling from city to city as part of a larger trip. This can also be used in smaller inner-city trips using the JR Lines. The main negative is that you can only use these JR Lines and not some of the regional train lines.
It’s worth noting that it is not a guarantee that you will save money. I arrived in Osaka and flew home from Tokyo meaning that this one-way route was cheaper without the JR Pass. Opting for travelling without a JR Pass also allows more train options too rather than being restricted to JR Rail lines.
Use the JR Fare Calculator to make sure this will work for you. Below is the current rail network between the major cities in Japan.
Convenience Stores Can Save You Cash.
This can be a really good way to keep the spending money costs low while also enjoying some food while you are out and about. FamilyMart, 7-Eleven and Lawson are the big convenience store names to look out for.
You will usually find a number of different kinds of sushi and sandwiches (like a katsu sandwich) stored in the fridge. Also, there is usually some hot food by the counter at the till, like some type of cooked chicken. Just remember what I have mentioned below about eating in public.
Learn Some Japanese Phrases
Although you will come across many people who do not speak English (or your chosen first language), you can usually get by with the universal signs and pointing. However, like anywhere, it is always useful, and courteous, to learn a few basic phrases before travelling to help along the way. Even things as simple as these can help a situation:
- Arigato: Thank you.
- Hai: Yes.
- Iie: No. (Rarely used).
- Sumimasen: Excuse me.
- O-negai shimasu: Please.
- Gomennasai: I am sorry.
- Ohayō gozaimasu: Good morning.
- Konbanwa: Good evening.
- O-yasumi nasai: Good night.
- Wakarimasen: I don’t understand.
- Okawari: “Seconds” or “Refill” (I picked this up in an izakaya while enjoying some Japanese beer).
As mentioned above, the word “no” is rarely used in Japan. Sometimes you may have to look at the body language of the person you are asking the question to. They may reply “yes” but they actually mean “no”. This is because Japanese people do not like to say no to tourists, so look out for any signs of awkwardness during their answer.
Do Not Tip
Contrary to most countries I have visited, and effectively every Western country, do not tip in Japan. It is not part of Japanese culture. The culture is defined on respect and hard work. In Japan, people are expected to offer the best service possible without the need to be rewarded.
After meals, you should never leave any money for a tip. This will only end up with someone running after you to give you the money you left behind back.
Please do not think it will be a nice thing to do. It can even be considered rude to try to tip someone.
Don’t Eat While Walking
Japanese locals don’t usually eat while walking around the street. They don’t tend to eat outside on the street at all actually. By the same token, eating and drinking on local trains is also not a common sight so is frowned upon.
However, what is acceptable if you want to drink, is to do so while standing next to a vending machine.
You Can’t Smoke Everywhere
It is common courtesy to only smoke in designated smoking areas to contain second-hand smoke. However, many cities actually forbid a person to smoke on the streets in busy areas except in designated smoking areas.
Another common option for smokers is to carry a portable ashtray to temporarily store their cigarette when cigarette bins cannot be found. These can be purchased at one of the many convenience stores in Japan.
Tattoos Are Not Welcome Everywhere
Tattoos in Japan are a bit of a taboo subject. Over the years, tattoos have been linked to Yakuza, and therefore criminal activity. Therefore, giving tattoos a bad name in Japan. Although many locals in Japan do indeed have tattoos, they are a touchy social and employment subject.
Consequently, you should try to keep tattooed areas covered as much as possible. If you intend on using a gym, pool, or spa facility, you may still be required to cover them and may be refused entry if you cannot.
Even more so, tattoos are banned in onsen (bathhouse) and some ryokan. You do not want to miss out on that experience for not being prepared.
Hire a Pocket WiFi
If you are travelling from the West, or most places for that matter, you are going to want to have a way of accessing the outside world. More importantly, you are going to want access to a GPS or map. Pocket WiFi devices are an easy and cost-effective way to do so. This device allows a network connection while you roam around Japan. This keeps you connected at all times, as long as you remember to charge it overnight.
This small device can be purchased in advance and collected on arrival to Japan at any airport. You can then either hand it back when leaving or post it using the provided packaging.
There are many companies which offer this. One common option is to purchase a device from the JR Rail website. If you are planning on travelling as a group, you will probably only need one device for all of you.
Plan Your Days Before You Leave
Another of my top tips for your first time in Japan would have to be to plan your days properly. Most places in Europe you can get away with having a rough direction to head off in and you will finally arrive at your destination after finding a few hidden gems. Unlike the city of Rome in Italy, most cities in Japan are huge, especially in Tokyo.
Without a doubt, if you plan on seeing a substantial amount of Tokyo, you will need to ride public transport. Thankfully in Japan, the public transport is incredibly efficient. All that’s left is for you to create a plan of things to see and a route to take to make the most of your day.
If you want a first-hand experience of how large Tokyo is, head to the Tokyo Skytree. Head 450 meters into the air and take in the breathtaking views of Tokyo. Wander around the viewing platforms and all you will see is Tokyo disappearing into the distance.
Don’t Forget Your Socks and Shoes
This probably is not the most important tip for travelling to Japan for the first time, but I thought I would touch on it anyway. Entering some places in Japan will mean taking off your “outdoor shoes” and then either having only your socks or changing into “indoor shoes“. Either way, you don’t want to be left with a red face because you have forgotten you are wearing old socks with holes in them.
Escalator Etiquette – Left or Right?
This may seem a little odd. We all know how to use an escalator, right? Well in Japan, just like anywhere else, there are a few unwritten rules to follow. In the UK, as a whole, you stand on the left while ascending or descending on an escalator. The same rules apply when you are in Japan… unless you are in the Osaka area.
Strangely enough, you should always stand on the left, unless you are in Osaka. Then it is the opposite and you stand on the right. The reason for this is largely unknown.
Hand Items Over With Both Hands
Not long after you arrive in Japan, will you be purchasing something from a store or being given an item by someone. Unlike most countries, the Japanese people will hand things over with two hands, no matter the size of the item. This is a sign of respect. This can also take a bit of getting used to and actively trying to remember to do so, whether it is giving gifts to receiving change in a store.
If the item is a business card, then you should receive it in two hands, before spending a moment to read and acknowledge the card.
Food Etiquette – DO’s And DON’Ts
If you are not sure how to use chopsticks, then don’t be afraid to ask for a knife and fork. However, if you are handy with a pair of chopsticks don’t let yourself down by sticking your chopsticks upright in your rice. In both China and Japan, this is considered very bad luck.
Some say that upright chopsticks resemble funeral incense and therefore effectively symbolises death. However, more traditionally, the connection comes from a part of the funeral. This is because rice is offered to the dead with his/her chopsticks stuck upright.
On a brighter note, when that warm bowl of ramen arrives, don’t be afraid to slurp the noodles. They are no doubt going to be hot, so this doesn’t only stop your mouth from burning. It also, funnily enough, is a sign of enjoyment and therefore a compliment!
Bar Hopping – Look Up
As you wander down the narrow streets looking for a bar, you will no doubt look left and right as you stroll through the narrow streets in Japan. This means you are probably missing more than half the bars you are walking by. Some well-known bar streets in Japan are in well-populated areas, meaning that the buildings are potentially 10 stories tall. Many bars are located on the upper floors of a building.
Look out for the signs outside at street level and also signs up above on the side of the buildings. These indicate what is in each building.
Have you ever been to Japan, or are thinking about travelling there? Do you have any tips for travelling to Japan for the first time?